Photos courtesy of Dean Marchetto
Finding the perfect apartment in Hoboken can feel like a religious experience. Especially if it happens to have dramatic windows and high, vaulted ceilings and the previous tenant was the Lord.
As church congregations grow smaller, and the population of apartment hunters grows larger, plenty of developers have realized that converting old churches can be a great way to attract folks who are looking for a unique place to live. Hoboken, meanwhile, maintains its architectural history while making way for new residents.
The Abbey on Hudson Street was converted into a condo building in 1984. Prior to that, the church, which was established in the late 1800s, was known as Saint Paul’s Episcopal.
The old church was converted into a 24-unit condo building by architect Dean Marchetto. It was the first church conversion of his career. He recalls walking into the space and hoping to incorporate some religious details in each unit.
“I thought every apartment should have one of these great windows that go all the way down the side on the left and the right,” he says. “Church structures and their shapes are not generally similar to residential building shapes. It can be like fitting a square peg in a round hole. The best solutions come from finding creative ways to use the architectural elements of the church to enhance the residential design.”
The long Gothic arch windows were two stories high, but Marchetto made them work in duplex apartments with a loft bedroom so the stained glass was visible on both levels. One resident even supplied sunglasses for the Virgin Mary on the bedroom portion of his window, joking that he wanted a bit of privacy.
Maintaining the feeling of a church throughout the entire building became Marchetto’s creative goal. “If you go inside a church conversion, and you see a hallway and an elevator like every other building, it doesn’t feel special, so by creating a two-story hallway and creating a pitched ceiling, it recalls the shape of the original structure,” Marchetto says.
In the upper floors, Marchetto encountered other issues. “It gets narrow,” he says, so he created triplexes. Having a bell tower for a bedroom might not mean a lot of square footage, but it’s pretty cool. “There’s the oculos window that’s right on the front of the church.” The space looks larger because it’s flooded with light.
Another of Marchetto’s church conversions is a building known as The Vestry, formerly the First Dutch Reform Church of Hoboken, built in 1900.
Marchetto had to raise the pitch of the roof to make the ceilings high enough for the apartments. “The bricks were so old that they don’t make them anymore,” Marchetto says, but he found a close match. They preserved a standout feature of the building. “There was a major rose window on the front facade, which the builder restored.”
Preserving these details is appealing to buyers, but it also keeps a piece of Hoboken history alive. “Over time they have become part of the fabric of the city and often great neighbors,” Marchetto says. “They also provide architectural diversity in a city like Hoboken dominated by brick row houses and brownstones.”
Marchetto also had a hand in the conversion of the First Baptist Church of Hoboken at 901 Bloomfield, built in 1890 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, and currently under construction.
“The building is a church in the round. It’s a big rotunda,” Marchetto says. “Baptist churches typically have circular main sanctuary spaces, and 901 is a classic example. While the other churches we re-purposed were rectangular, this one posed particular problems with the layouts. As a result, most of the rooms built into the main sanctuary space have at least one curved wall. While furniture placement may be tricky, these units will have a unique appeal.”
“This Norwegian church did not have a rear altar area, an apse, so we decided to add the missing apse which ultimately became my office.” – Dean Marchetto
Marchetto says that buyers and renters are attracted to the large, quirky spaces. “Developers, especially condominium developers, want to offer one-of-a-kind living spaces because they bring value to certain buyers,” Marchetto says. “Often these churches are in prime neighborhoods, and new development opportunities in these developed neighborhoods are becoming harder and harder to find.”
Marchetto knows the appeal firsthand. His office, at 1225 Willow, is a church conversion. The building was a Norwegian Lutheran Church, built in the late 1800s and rebuilt in 1913. After World War I, the church was sold to the American Legion. In the late 1990s when membership dwindled, the group left to seek a smaller space that needed less maintenance. The American Legion’s real-estate agent approached Marchetto because she knew he had worked with developers who might be interested in the space.
At the time, the real-estate market wasn’t that hot, and no one was interested. On a whim, Marchetto decided to take a look at the church.
“It had a drop ceiling, black-and-red checkered floor, and wood paneling,” he recalls. “You wouldn’t know you were in a church. In fact, you would have thought you were in an American Legion Hall anywhere in America.” It’s hard to imagine now that the church is restored and modernized. One standout feature is the domed tin ceiling. “I took a ladder, and I took the light fixture tile and I tipped it so the light would point up,” Marchetto says. “I looked up there and I saw that ceiling, and it was completely intact. Now all of a sudden my architectural juices are flowing, and I said, holy smoke, maybe this would be a great office. Because it was a little bit after the recession and because it was in bad repair, they were selling for a very low number.”
“The choice we made was to do a Mission style interior,” he says. “The reason being is that architects like to take modern ideas and juxtapose them with historical things. This Mission style is a modern style, but it’s all wood. It felt compatible with the history of the building.”
About five years ago, Marchetto needed more space. He decided to add a modern version of an apse on the back of his building. An apse is the rounded altar area, where clergy typically perform the service. “This Norwegian church did not have a rear altar area, an apse, so we decided to add the missing apse which ultimately became my personal office,” Marchetto says. The expansion is bright and modern. “This addition design which we named ‘Apse-Traction’ won two American Institute of Architects design awards and was honored in a Paris competition for the unique use of natural zinc exterior cladding.”
Ideally, design and the divine work together.
“Historically, churches are designed as a spiritual space, to create an uplifting sense of grandeur derived from the architecture,” Marchetto says. “We like to think capturing that feeling in an architecture studio not only adds to one’s creative sensibilities at work but inspires our clients to expand their understanding of architecture and design.”